Thoughts on the forthcoming Southampton Conference

I wrote this piece for Engage – read the original here. Scroll to the bottom for some updates.

In the last decade or more, working in British universities, I have witnessed the growth of a zeitgeist in which antisemitism is not taken seriously by people who, in every other way, would be regarded as exemplary anti-racists. It has become common currency among many anti-racist academics to claim that allegations of antisemitism are made in bad faith, that such allegations are a way of closing down criticism of Israel – a manoeuvre my former colleague David Hirsh has aptly named “the Livingstone formulation”.

Those of us who take antisemitism seriously – and who want the broader anti-racist movement as well as the wider academic community to take antisemitism seriously – need to make sure that we are robust but also measured in calling out antisemitism.

In an example of an accusation of antisemitism that is far from measured, Douglas Murray – in an op ed in the Express – has accused Southampton University’s forthcoming conference, International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, of “vile and routine Jew baiting.” This kind of reckless accusation (he calls the conference “a rally of hate”) devalues the concept of antisemitism and undermines the difficult struggle to get it to be taken seriously.

Most criticisms of the conference, however, have not accused it of antisemitism directly. Rather, the accusation has been that it “is likely to result in an increase in antisemitism and tension on campus” (Vivian Wineman) or may “give credence to anti-Semitic views” (Mark Lewis). It is possible that these latter allegations may be well-founded, but if they are, I do not think that this is sufficient grounds to stifle academic debate.

The space of the university should be one in which a range of views are expressed, in which academics and students are free to criticise and indeed question the legitimacy of any or all states. The spirit of free inquiry and free debate is essential to scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge. As Geoffrey Alderman has said, “The core purpose of a university is to pursue the truth and the core methods by which truth is pursued are dialogue and disputation. These methodologies presuppose the free exchange of ideas and the freedom to promote these ideas – no matter how controversial or unpopular they may be – without fear or favour.” This is why I think that Southampton University is right not to cancel this conference organised by its Law Department, and wrong for communal institutions or donors to pressure the university to cancel it.

Those calling for the cancellation of the conference appear to fundamentally misunderstand the role of a university and the principle of academic freedom. “Given the taxpayer-funded university has a legal duty to uphold freedom of speech,” Eric Pickles wrote, “I would hope that they are taking steps to give a platform to all sides.” ““This is a one-sided conference, not a debate,” said Mark Lewis, continuing: “If Southampton allows teaching which does not present both sides of a case it would raise doubts in my mind about the suitability of a candidate from its School of Law.”

Such criticisms seem to confuse what goes on in the classroom – where multiple perspectives on issues should be presented – with what goes on in a conference, where scholars should be free to take a position. It is wrong to expect universities to ensure that conferences “give a platform to all sides”. For example, a conference on climate change should not be required to give a platform to climate skeptics, and a philosophy conference should not be expected to give a platform to every school of philosophy.  In fact, universities are legally obliged by the Education Act of 1986 to protect their members’ freedom of speech within the law.

To curtail the right of scholars to criticise Israel – even to deny its right to exist – without giving a platform to opposing views opens up a dangerous precedent too. The same arguments could be extended, for example, to conferences which take a critical stance towards other states and governments, including states and governments which persecute Jews or other minorities.

I would not argue that all academic speech should be defended. I am suspicious of the pious fetishisation of academic freedom or freedom of speech as an absolute right (as in the statement by the MP for Fareham, Mark Hoban, that “academic freedom is sacrosanct”, prefacing his call for that freedom to be curtailed). Thus, for example, I think racism (including antisemitism) and fascism have no place in a university; I support universities or student unions which deny a platform to fascist speakers (such as Marine Le Pen, recently hosted by students at the university where I work, I am ashamed to say.) But these cases are the exceptions and not the rule.

I am sure that I would strongly disagree with the views expressed by many of the speakers at the conference. It may be that some speakers may contribute to a climate in which antisemitism is not taken seriously. These positions, however, should be challenged through argument, and not by banning an event.

I do, though, have sympathy with Jewish scholars and students at Southampton who feel that this conference may contribute to a climate that will be uncomfortable for them – as expressed in the statement by Joachim Schlör, Director of Southampton’s Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, that the conference “could potentially damage the spirit of dialogue and cooperation that James Parkes brought to Southampton”.

Calls for this conference to be cancelled pose a threat to academic freedom. But this threat is matched by the threat to academic freedom posed by some campus anti-Israel activists. Last year, a talk at the same university’s Optoelectronics Research Centre on the apparently un-contentious topic of optical sensors was cancelled after protests by anti-Israel activists against the Israeli scientist due to give the talk. When protests can effectively make a university a hostile environment for Israelis, even when they are there to talk about something as harmless as optoelectronics, this makes Jewish students feel vulnerable.

Intimidation, boycotts and threats to withdraw funding are all very unhealthy practices in a university. They stifle debate and prevent the production of academic knowledge, and damage community relations on campus. If we take antisemitism seriously we should criticise forms of academic speech that can encourage these practices. But we also need to think very carefully before promoting these practices ourselves in our attempt to combat antisemitism.

UPDATE 1:

There’s been an interesting debate in the Engage comments thread, on this and subsequent posts on this topic. Here are two of my interventions, best read in context of the discussion as linked to below.

i.

March 23, 2015 at 10:37 am

If I may respond to a couple of the points raised in the comments:

On the point about Marine Le Pen versus this conference. Perhaps my mention of Le Pen was unhelpful in muddying the water. My point was simply that my defence of academic freedom is not absolute; lines need to be drawn. We need to make a distinction between speech that should be argued against and condemned, and speech that is so unacceptable that it has no place in a university. In my view, questioning the legitimacy of any particular state does not fall into the latter category.

Second, many of the suggestions about singling out Israel seem misplaced to me. It may be the case that some of the speakers, or more widely those who deny Israel’s right to exist, single out Israel for antisemitic reasons or with antisemitic effect. I agree that there is a general trend towards double standards in public discourse, where Israel is singled out and judged harshly for crimes that are committed by many states.

But this is not grounds on which to cancel a conference, or to demand that it reflect “balance” in its deliberations. If Southampton University’s only activity was to host conferences on Israel’s legitimacy in international law, then these demands would be sensible. But Southampton, like all universities, hosts conferences and seminars on a whole range of extremely specific topics (this week, there are events on experimental design, barrier immunology and the shipping market, for instance). To suggest that focus on a specific case study or country is illegitimate is absurd.

There are regular academic conferences on the Indian Partition (a topic on which Southampton’s History department has done a lot of work on) and on China’s occupation of Tibet. Should a conference on the Armenian genocide widen its brief to all genocides to avoid “singling out” Turkey? Should a conference on the history of fascism be required to have fascist speakers to achieve “balance”? Should a conference on the Arab spring be required to look at other regions too, to avoid singling out Arabs, or include representatives of the Mubarak regime to achieve “balance”? Should a conference on environmental degradation in China be required to look at environmental degradation everywhere, to avoid “singling out” China?

Building knowledge requires specialisation, focusing on specifics. These sorts of specialisation are never neutral and accidental; we are right to be wary of the motives of those who specialise, and aware of the effects of patterns of specialisation that put one group in the spotlight and hide others. But to jump from this to demanding the conference is cancelled is an absurd and dangerous response.

Finally, I was not aware that this conference’s main organiser was a defender of Gilad Atzmon. This is a very serious issue – clearly, Atzmon’s views have no place in a university – but this is a separate issue from the legitimacy or desirability of banning this particular conference.

ii.

[On hearing that the conference had been postponed on safety grounds]

March 31, 2015 at 11:25 am

This is a very bad outcome for everyone. This will be perceived as the university bowing to pressure from what the organisers call “the Israel lobby”, so that the organisers become the victims here. The university has not acknowledged any of the criticisms made of the conference as legitimate, so those opposing the conference cannot claim to have won any argument. Although the university appears to be saying that pro- and anti-demonstrators contribute to the security risk, casual readers will infer that a security risk to an anti-Israel conference comes from pro-Israel demonstrators, so now Israel defenders will appear as the bullies. In short, the Zionist Federation and others who have pressured the university have scored a big own goal: the appearance is that, instead of winning a debate on Israel’s legitimacy they have closed down the debate through their pressure.

More generally, although this is not the first recent debate on a university to be cancelled on safety grounds because of the threat of protest (I think the cancelling of the feminist comedian Kate Smurfwaite, due to appear at Goldsmiths, was on safety grounds because of the likelihood of protest against her by other feminists), it contributes a dangerous precedent whereby safety is used as a justification for avoiding controversial debate. This is a major blow against free debate in British universities.

UPDATE 2:

Other related posts at Engage:

 

UPDATE 3:

Analysis of the antisemitic philosophy of the conference organiser Oren Ben Dor, by Sarah Brown, published in Fathom. (See further discussion at Engage.)

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About bengidley

Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Science, History and Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. View all posts by bengidley

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